BOZEMAN — Tyler Hall accepted Brian Fish’s challenge head on.
Hall lit up Centrum Arena in Cedar City, Utah to kick off Big Sky Conference play, hitting eight 3-pointers and scored 36 points in a 104-point explosion by Montana State. Two nights later, the preseason Big Sky MVP struggled mightily, hitting just one of his 12 3-point tries and four of his 18 field goal attempts overall.
In Montana State’s Big Sky home opener on Thursday, Fish confronted Hall with the proposition of going against Northern Colorado guard Jonah Radebaugh, the reigning Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year.
MSU’s star junior guard answered the challenge resoundingly. Hall buried three of his first four 3-pointers with Radebaugh up in his face, then kept pouring it on at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse.
Hall hit seven 3-pointers and scored a game-high 28 points despite Radebaugh’s harassment to lead the Bobcats to a 76-64 victory in front of 2,542 in Bozeman on Thursday night.
“He’s a great defender and Coach told me that he would probably be pushing up on me and I expected it,” Hall said. “I took it as a challenge but he was still tough.
“Just pre-game preparation. I didn’t hang my head after NAU. We still won against NAU and that’s all that mattered to me. I just came and got prepared.”
The Rock Island, Illinois native sprained his ankle in MSU’s third game and struggle with the injury until Christmas break. Now that he’s back to full strength, he’s back to the form that has many around the country mentioning him as a future NBA Draft pick.
“I thought Tyler did a better job of moving without the ball than he’s done,” Fish said. “You can start to see that his health is good and he’s moving better. I thought we did a good job of finding him and getting him the ball, some great screens, good stuff.”
The victory moves Montana State to 3-0 in Big Sky play for the first time since the 2012-13 season and the first time in Fish’s four years at the helm. The 10-6 Bobcats beat a Northern Colorado team coming off a sweep of Eastern Washington and pre-season favorite Idaho last weekend.
“A lot of heart,” Hall said. “Coach has been preaching to have a good start in conference. We’ve been waiting for this. We’ve been working real hard in practice. Practice is where it starts. We just try to have a lot of energy and our leaders have been doing a good job of stepping up.”
Hall’s four-point play with nine minutes, 31 seconds to play pushed a four-point MSU lead to eight, 64-56 and his dagger with 3:23 left pushed the MSU advantage to 72-63. Montana State never trailed after overcoming a 2-0 deficit thanks to Hall’s smooth scoring and a dominant 44-28 advantage on the glass.
“That’s something the coaches have been preaching lately in practice that we got to out-rebounding,” MSU junior forward Sam Neumann said after matching Hall with a team-high eight rebounds. “We beat them pretty good on the boards, so definitely proud of that and that’s something we have to do going forward.”
“Those extra rebounds, they bring a lot of energy. The bench was going crazy after a couple of big rebounds. It gets everybody into it and it helps us offensively and defensively with that energy.”
Hall and Neumann each grabbed eight rebounds, senior Zach Green grabbed seven and junior Keljin Blevins — one of three Bobcats along with sophomore Harald Frey (13) who scored in double figures with 11 points — added six rebounds.
“I liked the toughness of our guys,” Fish said. “We have to rebound by committee because we are not an overly big team but we can be athletic. And I thought we were tonight.”
Northern Colorado came to Bozeman with one of the league’s most prolific backcourts led by All-Big Sky junior point guard Jordan Davis and senior former Arizona State transfer Andre Spight. Davis scored 18 points and dished out four assists but had to work to get into the flow of the offense. Spight missed nine of his first 10 shots, including five of his first six 3-point tries, and finished 6-of-20 from the floor, 1-of-9 from deep with 13 points.
“I think they are really good at getting you to look at the ball on the drive and then slipping it in there for a big guy to score so we really worked on flowing as the ball was driven to flow,” Fish said. “We got some turnovers there that helped us. They only turned the ball over 10 times but when you rebound and win that war by 16, it limits the amount of shots they get. They got more shots than us but we took them out of their rhythm by dominating the boards.”
“I thought they missed some shots but I like the effort of our guys. They had been hitting. They come off a big win against Idaho. They missed some shots. I know it’s early in the season but that team is really, really good and I’m just glad we found a way.”
The Bobcats earned nine straight stops down the stretch to finish the game, a key factor in overcoming a 13-of-20 night from the free throw line.
“I thought we closed it out differently,” Fish said. “Previously, when we closed out games, we had to make shots. Tonight, we closed it out with defense — we had eight or nine stops in a row — and we rebounded and that’s a veteran close out game instead of hero ball. We closed it out doing grunt work today and that’s how you have to do it to be a good team.”
Montana State’s attention now turns to North Dakota. The defending league champions got blasted in Missoula, 109-79 and come to Bozeman Saturday with a 0-3 mark in league play.
“We have about 18 minutes to think about this win since we play at two o’clock on Saturday,” Fish said. “I wish we were football. I wish we didn’t play but once a week. We will refocus.”
Brooks Nuanez reported the quotes for this story. Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.